Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Unicoi Gap to The NOC

Magic does exist. Today’s Magic would consist of a three course breakfast of sweet pancakes, fluffy eggs, and crackling bacon conjured seemingly out of thin air, in the rain, on a highway pull off in Georgia. 

The previous night we had slept in what may have been, the most bizarre motel room ever. Upon entering, one could not mistake the pungeant mixture of bleach and, for lack of the words, the dank smell one usually finds in a cave. Past the threshold, one stepped up to a raised carpeted floor, it’s once white threads now covered in stains of various hue and density. The bed was relatively plain, even with the wreath hanging above it. What was strange about the bed, was it’s proximity to the tub. About three feet away, up yet another raised carpeted floor, and taking up the whole corner of the room, glowed a pink, mirrored tub. The worst part, it was out of order! If you wanted to bathe, you needed the bathroom. Down from the carpet to the tile we go. The floor of the bathroom was pleasant and squishy, like a marsh, and the shower head only shot a single jet of water. A mini fridge lay open and broken, with fresh spider webs inside. For $40 We. Loved. It. All. 
It was magic we arrived back at Unicoi Gap the same time as 8Track and Kathy, and by mistake, the rain. Under the awning of his camper, the usual tramily (trail family) of Goodwitch, Dream Liner, Sunshine, Thread, Tailgate, Pop Pop, Goodlife and us, ate the delicious breakfast prepared by Kathy. I stood near the door passing full plates to wide eyed hikers, the heat steaming away into the cold morning air. 

We started up Rocky Mountain with full stomachs and rain gear. The rain gear didn’t last long, as we were soon sweating. Rocky proved to be tougher than anticipated, but also stunning. As we hiked higher, thin tendrils of mist wrapped around the white trunks of Birch trees. The clouds hung low and lethargic, drapped like a silver curtain over the peaks.  The sound was dampened, and nothing seemed to be moving, but us. 

It was on the descent of Rocky when I started to feel my knee hurting. I could hike, but something seemed off. The side of my knee felt wrong, but we kept hiking. Back up again we went, this time up Tray Mountain, which was a longer, but less steep climb than Rocky. Uphill, my knee still hurt, but considerably less so we continued churning away the miles. We reached the top of Tray Mountain and looked out at what was very probably beautiful views. At the time, all we could see was a thick wall of grey. “Man I love the AT” I thought to myself. It was scenes just like this, that made me fall in love with long distance hiking. Only when you’re out here this long, would you hike up a mountain shrowded in clouds. Big views are always great, but there’s a certain magic about the misty days too. 

We stopped in at Tray Mountain Shelter for water and met some new faces. One, The Royal Scarecrow (always has a little Crown Royal, but no “brain” on his backpack) would hike with us for the coming days. 

Despite the warnings of rain, we pushed on, wanting to make it to Dicks Creek Gap by the next day. On the descent of Trey, my knee really deteriorated. I cursed my way through the last 5 miles, trying in vain to wrap my knee so it didn’t hurt. We made it to our camp, a gap named Sassafras, about the same time the sky decided to open up. 

Our tent is small. It’s technically a two person rig, but at a light 2 pounds, it lacks any bells and whistles, like extra space. We fit perfectly side by side but there is no space to spare. We stayed warm and dry, but our packs took a beating under the vestibules, getting splashed by mud all night.

It was the first time we slept totally alone on the trail. Unsurprisingly, the lack of noise from other hikers made for a good nights sleep. Heavy droplets pinged against the green nylon of our tent, an anarchic metronome guiding us to sleep. 

We woke to brisk temperatures, but clear skies. After a lot of stretching, and Legs mercilessly rubbing the knots out of my quad and IT band, my knee was feeling slightly better. I told Legs, “It’s fine. It only hurts when I step.”The day was crisp and clear, and thankfully relatively easy, despite a prolonged downhill to Dicks Creek Gap. We hitched back into Hiawassee to supplement our food, decided to watch a movie, and, like something out of a old Twilight Zone, we ended the day back in the Pink Tub Room.The next morning, we shuttled back to the trail, and again, were met with more trail magic. Greeter had all the healthy food groups, hotdogs, oreos, and chips, to name a few.  We loaded up, and started north. 

Out of Dicks Creek Gap, the trail moved steadily and unwavering upward. From the gap, it’s less than 8 miles to the North Carolina border. 

The Border lacks any and all pomp or ceremony. Rather, it’s a small weathered sign, nailed to a tree which reads, “NC/GA.” You could easily miss it, cranking away at yet another steady climb. We took our obligatory border photo and continued to Bly Gap. After Bly, the trail blasts upward, almost comically. A harder climb than any so far in Georgia, the welcome to NC is a fucking doosy. Like meeting your girlfriend’s ex marine father for the first time; it tests you. “North Carolina must hate hikers!” Exclaimed Scarecrow from a vista. He had a huge grin plastered on his face. Moments like this are why we are out here. We hiked around 12 miles to reach Muscrat Shelter, arriving before the massive bubble. I probed the hikers there with the usual pre shelter questions, most importantly, “Do you snore?” “Of course” some exclaimed! So we set up our tent. 

The bubble arrived not long after us, starting as a dribble of individuals, then moving to a full on stream of groups. There were probably 30 or so people camping in the area that night. 

During the night a massive, and powerful thunderstorm slammed into our camp. At it’s fiercest, no time passed between the white spot inducing crack of lightning, and the literal earth shaking roar of thunder. We huddled in The Greenhouse (our tent, a Nemo Hornet 2P), and listened to the symphony unfold. Laying directly on the ground allowed us to feel the earth breath. 

The following day we left early, leaving behind the bubble. The first “big climb” was up Standing Indian Mountain, a 5k+ foot peak just north of Deep Gap. It’s an easier climb, switchbacking up a wide trail to the summit, then gently descending over 4 miles through a tunnel of Rhododendron. Legs, who had slept poorly the night before (due to thunder, and of course, snoring from a nearby tent) was in no mood for my jokes and quickly got tired of me. There may be no better incentive to hike faster, than being pissed off at your hiking partner. She was flying! We eventually made up at a small cascade a few miles later. (Remember, smiles not miles.) We made it to Carter Gap Shelter about 12 miles up trail with a lot of daylight to spare. Knowing the huge bubble was behind us and they would be coming here, we filled up our waters, had a snack, and kept going. In another 4 miles we stopped, and pitched The Greenhouse near Betty Creek under a thick latice of Rhododendron. The creek water was clean and brutally cold, but made for better white noise than the previous night. We shared this spot with just Scarecrow. By simply hiking a few more miles past the shelter, we had successfully hiked out of the bubble. We awoke to another cold morning and started hiking. This morning was different though, as we would reach Franklin, NC by days end. Where we could sleep in a warm bed and take our first zero of the trail. (A zero is a day where zero hiking takes place.)

The hike was a simple one that day, except for a crushing scramble to the summit of Albert Mountain. We had the summit to ourselves, with sweeping views of the blue/green patchwork of watersheds below. Down, and down again, to Rock Gap, where we just missed a ride into town. We’d need to hike another 4 miles to Winding Stair Gap, and just like that, we’d need to do it through hail. It was a gentle hail however, and we caught the shuttle into Franklin. We shared a room with Scarecrow at Haven’s Budget Inn, hunkering down before the worse of the snow hit. At 4pm, a bus took 10 of us to a Chinese buffet and a Walmart, which satisfied literally everyone’s needs in one fell swoop. We slept soundly and clean at the Inn, and awoke to a land covered in snow. We sank back into our warm beds and patted ourselves on the back for hiking fast enough to miss the bad weather. I dont think I stoodup until 3pm. After our first zero, we hit the trail, north from Winding Stair Gap. We would be leaving behind hikers who would not be coming back, their hikes over. It is all part of the game, Georgia to Maine, as they say. 

The trail today would test the mind far more than the body. As we wound in and out of the mountains, we’d also jump from snow and ice covered trail to uncovered, melted trail. When you need to think about every step, the mental hike feels like forever. We dodged overflowing puddles and ice patches, and slogged up ice covered ascents. Legs drove herself into a rage slipping backwords with every other step. We finished the hike as the snow really started to come down. Through a curtain of silvery mist, the dark silhouette of a shelter began to take form. Cold Spring Shelter is ON the trail, and has been since 1930. You can touch it as you pass by. Closer still is Cold Spring itself, flowing smoothly out of the side of the mountain a few feet in front of the shelter. Technically, it should sleep 6, but with Me (6’6″), Legs, Wonder Woman, Fish, and Radio (6′ 4″), there wasn’t any space left. 

As darkness fell, the snow really began to pick up. We slept shoulder to shoulder, our breath crystallizing in small puffs of white. Silhouetted in the doorway, hung our food bags on mice strings, looking like butterfly cacoons. The temperatures froze at a balmy 18 degrees. We were warm all night, even when Wonder   Woman screamed loudly. A mouse was trying to get in her sleeping bag. All part of the GA-ME. The next day would prove to be my  favorite thus far. We woke to a world smothered in white. Everything felt dampened, from the outer shells of our sleeping bags, to the acoustics of the forest. Muffled, everything muffled.

I slipped on all my layers, tore my boots from the frozen shelter floor and headed to the privy for a morning constitutional. Having sampled the sensation of sitting on a snow covered toilet seat (hole in wood), in below freezing temps, I do not highly recommend it. Next to me, in a empty bucket meant to hold leaves, two mice huddled together for warmth. They must have climbed in to escape the cold, but the sheer inner walls held no purchase for them to escape. 

(Before I continue, let me say that after recounting this story to hikers, most advocated for me leaving them in there or straight killing the mice. You better fucking believe I let those little critters out to survive another day. Hang your food and mice won’t be a problem. The end.)

 We left the shelter at 9:45am and began the 12.5 mile trudge into the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center).

Legs, pragmatic as ever, told me to hike ahead and secure a room at the NOC. We knew a lot of hikers would be coming in today, pushing hard to sleep indoors and avoid the  upcoming single digit forecast. Legs might as well have unleashed the Dogs of War, because I was flying. The previous day, I had seen Fish and Radio cruising down the trail faster than anyone else I’d seen so far. They had left earlier than us from the shelter and I wanted to see if I could catch them. I did. 

I hiked those 12 miles in 3 hours and 15 minutes. All the while, a goofy grin split my face ear to ear. I was having a blast. Constant falling snow, low visibility, and wind gusts that scorched your face, all while going up and down the southern Appalachians- pinch me. ​​

​At Jump Off Point, the trail seemed to walk off a cliff into a thick, grey, abyss. Treacherously steep, covered in ice and snow, and exposed, all while cutting back violently down the mountain, made it my favorite place on trail so far.  In these dicier parts, I opted for sense and slowed down. The final 5 miles is all downhill, bringing us from 4k+ to 1700 feet. It served as a reminder of the climb to come, out of the NOC, and to the North. 

Until next time, Darwin out.